The Milgram Experiment is a psychological experiment first carried out in New Haven in 1961 and developed by psychologist Stanley Milgram to test the willingness of average people to obey authoritarian orders even when they are in direct conflict with their conscience . The experiment consisted of a “teacher” - the actual test person - giving a “student” (an actor ) an electric shock if they made a mistake . An experimenter (also an actor) gave instructions. The intensity of the electric shock should be increased after each error. This arrangement was carried out in different variations.
History and overview
Milgram was inspired by the American psychiatrist Jerome D. Frank , who had already investigated the question of what the obedience of arbitrarily selected people depends on as early as 1944 . At that time, Frank asked his test subjects to eat twelve tasteless cookies - cf. the soda cracker experiment . The group was told that eating saltless cookies was scientifically necessary. Surprisingly, only ten percent of the participants refused to eat the cookies.
The Milgram experiment was originally intended to explain crimes from the time of National Socialism in terms of social psychology . To this end, the “Germans are different” thesis should be examined, which assumed that the Germans have a particularly authoritative character. After the first results of the investigation in New Haven, however, this no longer seemed necessary, also because the structure of the investigation was much more fundamental. Milgram received the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual award in the social psychology category for this work in 1964 . The American Psychological Association, on the other hand, banned Milgram for the experiment for a year after a critic in the American Psychologist magazine accused him of conducting a " traumatizing " experiment that was "potentially harmful" to the subjects. Mainly because of this criticism, which was also expressed by numerous other experts, Harvard University Milgram later refused employment. Milgram himself then noted:
"[It is] ethically questionable [...] to lure people into the laboratory and put them in a position that is stressful."
The results of the Milgram experiment were first published in an article entitled Behavioral study of obedience , which appeared in the prestigious Journal of abnormal and social psychology . In 1974 Milgram published his work: Obedience to Authority. An Experimental View , in which he put the results in a broader context. The German edition came out in the same year.
Milgram refers to the work of the political theorist Hannah Arendt , Eichmann in Jerusalem , published in New York in 1963 . A report on the banality of evil. This concept of the banality of evil, he argues, comes very close to the truth. The most fundamental finding of the investigation is that ordinary people who only fulfill their task and do not feel any personal enmity can be induced to act in an annihilation process.
The American historian Alfred W. McCoy suspects that Milgram carried out the experiment as part of the CIA - MKULTRA program for research on mind control. This is not only indicated by the timing, but also "the topic, the military connections, the controversial funding by the NSF and their rejection of all later Milgram projects". These allegations are extensively discussed and denied on the website of Milgram's biographer Thomas Blass.
Course of the original experiment
The entire course of the experiment is staged like a play in which everyone except the test person is initiated. Milgram adopted such an experimental arrangement from his teacher Solomon Asch . A test subject and a confidante of the test director who pretended to be a test subject were supposed to take part in an alleged experiment to investigate the relationship between punishment and learning success. An official experimenter (experimenter, V ) determined the actor to be the “pupil” (S) , the actual test subject to the “teacher” (L) . The administration of an electric shock , with a voltage of 45 volts, should make the subject aware of the physical consequences of electric shock . In addition, the test inventory, reminiscent of an electric chair , was shown on which the “student” was to be tested. This test arrangement with the desired association was never questioned by the test persons.
The experiment consisted of the “teacher” giving the “pupil” an electric shock whenever there was an error in the composition of word pairs. The voltage was increased by 15 volts after each error. In reality, the actor did not experience electric shocks, but reacted according to a predetermined scheme, depending on the voltage set. If the voltage reached 150 volts, for example, the actor asked to be untied from his chair because he could no longer stand the pain. On the other hand, the sitting experimenter demanded that the experiment should be continued for the benefit of science. If the test subject expressed doubts or even wanted to leave, the experimenter asked to continue in four standardized sentences. The sentences were spoken one after the other, after each expressed doubt by the test subject, and after the fourth time led to the experimenter breaking off the experiment. So that the sentences were always the same, they were rehearsed beforehand with the actor, especially to avoid a threatening undertone.
- Sentence 1: "Please, continue!" Or: "Please continue!"
- Sentence 2: "The experiment requires you to continue!"
- Sentence 3: "You absolutely have to continue!"
- Sentence 4: "You have no choice, you have to go on!"
There were also other standard sentences in anticipated course situations: If the test subject asked whether the “student” could sustain permanent physical damage, the experimenter said: “Even if the shocks may be painful, the tissue will not suffer permanent damage, so please go on! ”When the“ teacher ”said that the“ student ”did not want to continue, the standard response was:“ Whether the student likes it or not, you have to continue until he has learned all the word pairs correctly. So please go ahead! ”When asked about responsibility, the experimenter said he took responsibility for whatever happens. The test person responded to the electric shocks with expressions of pain recorded on tape. Milgram had initially lacked these in pre-test versions of the experiment, but then the willingness to obey was so high that he added them.
|tension||Reaction of the "student"|
|120 V||Cries of pain|
|150 V||He says that he no longer wants to take part in the experiment.|
|200 V||Screams "that freeze the blood in your veins".|
|300 V||He refuses to answer.|
|over 330 V||silence|
The “student” in this case was an inconspicuous American of Irish descent and represented a type of person who was associated with happiness and serenity. With this selection, an influencing of the behavior by a mental disposition of the test person should be avoided. In addition, it was important that the test subjects could not be inadvertently influenced either by the experimenter or by the “student”. The “teacher” could decide for himself when he wanted to stop the experiment. The experimenter behaved matter-of-factly, his clothes were kept in an inconspicuous gray tone. His demeanor was determined but friendly.
The test subjects were searched for via an advertisement in the local newspaper in New Haven (Connecticut) , whereby the stated fee of four US dollars plus 50 cents travel expenses was promised for the mere appearance. The experiment usually took place in a Yale University laboratory and was marked on the advertisement as being directed by Prof. Stanley Milgram.
The following table shows the number of test persons (subjects) (n = 40) who stopped the experiment, depending on the strength of the last applied "shocks".
|tension||up to 300 V||300 V||315 V||330 V||345 V||360 V||375 V||390 V to 435 V||450 V|
|Number of participants: cancellation||0||5||4th||2||1||1||1||0||26th|
In this case, 26 people went up to the maximum voltage of 450 volts and only 14 broke off beforehand.
Variations of the experiment
The result of the first experiment was so surprising that Milgram carried out over twenty variants with different parameters in each case. Other researchers also made variations.
Proximity between "teacher" and "student"
One variation concerned the proximity between “teacher” and “student”. The following four experimental conditions were set:
- the test person could neither see nor hear the "pupil", they only perceived a knock on the wall when the 300-volt limit was reached ("remote room"),
- the "teacher" heard the reactions of the "student" over a loudspeaker ("acoustic feedback"),
- “Teacher” and “student” were in a closed room (“near the room”) and
- the test person had direct contact with the actor (“proximity”).
In the last test set-up, the subject, protected by a glove, had to press the “student” s hand onto a metal plate that was supposedly electrically charged.
The following table shows the relationship between some varying test conditions, the proportion of test persons (subjects) who delivered the maximum shock, and the corresponding average shock strength.
|conditions||Share of subjects: maximum||ø tension|
|Remote space||65.0%||405 V|
In the first test series, 65 percent of the test persons were willing to “punish” the “student” with an electric shock with a maximum of 450 volts, but many felt a strong conflict of conscience . No “teacher” stopped the experiment before the 300-volt limit was reached. In the fourth experimental set-up, in which the test subjects had direct contact with the “student”, the voltage level reached was the lowest.
In a number of versions of the experiment, the experimenter's authority was varied.
If the experimenter complied with the student's request to stop and asked the test subject to stop the experiment, the latter followed the instruction without exception.
In a variant of the experiment, in which two experimenters led the experiment and pretended to disagree about the continuation of the experiment, the experiment was stopped in all cases by the test subject.
In a number of variations it has been shown that when the appeals conflict, it is not the contradiction per se and not the general status, but the situation-specific authority that is decisive:
If two experimenter were used, one of whom assumed the actual role of the experimenter, while the other experimenter played the "student" and asked to cancel, 65 percent of the participants went to the maximum. If a “second teacher” instead of the experimenter urged the experiment to be continued while the experimenter remained neutral, relatively few (25 percent) of the test subjects applied the maximum shock.
In a variation by Jerry Burger from 2009, a third person without authority, who urged the experiment to be aborted from the first screams (75 V), only persuaded a few test subjects to abort as long as the investigator insisted on continuing.
The result of an expansion of the experiment in 1965, on the other hand, was that the attitude of other “teachers” has an influence. The proportion of subjects who obeyed unconditionally decreased sharply (to 10 percent) as soon as two other supposed “teachers” who opposed the experimenter took part in the experiment. If the two “teachers” were in favor of continuing the experiment, 90 percent of the test subjects followed.
In another variation, the investigator of the prestigious Yale University was not as researchers but whose premises are the scientists of the fictitious commercial "Research Institute of Bridgeport" in a dilapidated office building in a commercial area in Bridgeport ( Connecticut were). The number of test subjects who used the highest voltage fell from 65 percent to 48 percent. However, this difference is not statistically significant .
Part of another variation was that Milgram left the room and an actor, who presented himself as a test subject, led the experiment. Here, the proportion of subjects who went up to the maximum level fell to 20 percent.
Presence of the investigator
In addition, the presence of the test leader was varied, who could either be directly in the room, only reachable by telephone or absent. In the latter case, the instructions were given using a tape recorder.
The absence of the experimenter meant that the obedience rate was three times lower than in the experimental setup with his presence.
Differentiation by gender
In a test set-up in which women were given the electric shocks, there was no significant difference in the drop-out rate compared to tests with male test subjects: In 2006, Jerry Burger's experiment at Santa Clara University was repeated under modified conditions. Women were involved, the maximum voltage was 150 volts. 70 percent of the subjects, none of whom were familiar with Milgram's experiment, went up to maximum strength. The difference compared to Milgram's original experiment (83% of the subjects went to 150 V) is not statistically significant.
Reaction of the test subjects
All test subjects in the original experiment showed a troubled state of mind, had conflicts of conscience and were excited. Milgram particularly noticed a nervous laugh that 35 percent of the test subjects uttered. One observer described the emotional state of a "teacher" as follows:
“I observed a mature and initially self-confident businessman who entered the laboratory smiling and full of self-confidence. In twenty minutes it was a twitching, stuttering wreck that was rapidly approaching a nervous breakdown . He kept tugging on his earlobe and wringing his hands. At one point he hit his forehead with his fist and mumbled, 'Oh god let's stop'. Yet he continued to respond to every word the experimenter said and obeyed to the end. "
It was found that people who rated personal responsibility for their behavior high were more likely to break off the experiment and contradict the investigator.
Long-term consequences for the test subjects
In order to do justice to the ethical aspects, the test subjects received detailed information about the experiment and its results after the test series was completed. In order to identify possible long-term damage, the test persons were visited and questioned again in a random sample one year after the experiment. According to Milgram, the experiment did not show any harmful effects on the subjects' psyche. 83 percent of the participants stated that in retrospect they were happy to have taken part in the experiment. Only one subject in a hundred regretted his participation. Most participants stated that they had learned something about themselves and that they therefore wanted to be more suspicious of persons in authority in the future. In contrast, other long-term studies report nervous breakdowns and post-traumatic stress disorder , and individual participants said forty years later when they were examined again that they had never got rid of this shock, this trauma, that is, a trauma of having been the perpetrator. The Freiburg psychologist Joachim Bauer concludes "that this experiment made the persons concerned, against their own intuition, against their natural human instincts [...], to follow the authority here".
Consequences and Consequences for Psychology
Today, a comparable experiment would be rejected by many psychologists as unethical because it subjects the subjects to strong internal pressure and is misled about the real purpose of the experiment. In response to this attempt, many universities established ethical guidelines on the admission of psychological experiments. It is not known whether the knowledge gained was used by the military and secret services.
Milgram commented on the results of his experiment as follows:
“The legal and philosophical aspects of obedience are enormously important, but they say very little about the behavior of most people in specific situations. I did a simple experiment at Yale University to find out how much pain an ordinary person would cause another simply because a scientist asked him to. Rigid authority stood against the participants 'strongest moral principles not to harm other people, and although the subjects' screams of pain rang in the ears of the test subjects, in the majority of cases authority won. The extreme readiness of adults to follow an authority almost indefinitely is the main finding of the study, and a fact that needs urgent explanation. "
To this day, obedience to authority is theoretically considered insufficiently clarified. Although Milgram suspected a personality basis for obedience to authority and denial, he could not substantiate it. Instead, he assumed two functional states:
- a state of autonomy in which the individual experiences himself as responsible for his actions, and
- an “ agent state ” into which it is placed by entering an authority system and no longer acts on the basis of its own objectives, but becomes an instrument for the wishes of others.
The experiment showed that the situation induced most of the subjects to follow the experimenter's instructions and not the victims' pain. Prompting was most effective when the experimenter was present and most ineffective when instructions were given by tape or telephone. The closeness to the “student” also influenced the willingness to break off the experiment. Virtually all test subjects went up to the highest shock level without any feedback from the “students”, while only 30 percent reached the highest level with direct contact.
Three essential methodological aspects were criticized in the experimental setup:
- The experiment did not follow a purely random selection of cases, so no reliable statements could be made about the representativeness, for example for the entire American population.
- The actors did not make the experiment real: At the higher voltage values, the "teachers" apparently heard screams from test subjects who were almost dying, shortly afterwards the next word (memory test) was asked, and the "students" replied again in a completely normal voice. Some “teachers” broke out into bizarre laughter because the situation was surreal.
- In the experiments, one had to take into account effects that influenced the course of the experiment, such as the fact that just being aware of taking part in a test changes the attitudes of the test person ( Hawthorne effect ) or the possibility that the experimenter's expectations have a subliminal influence on the Behavior of the test subjects ( Pygmalion effect ) .
Psychological and sociological attempts to explain
Milgram himself was surprised by the results of the experiment. Students and colleagues whom he told about the experiment estimated the number of those who go to the maximum to be extremely small. Milgram and others cited various reasons that led to such a large number of obedient subjects. As a possible reason for the behavior of the test subjects, the desire of the test subject to actually complete the voluntarily started experiment and to meet the expectations of the scientists (so-called normative social influence ) can be seen. The random drawing of the teacher and student also creates a seemingly fair situation. In addition, the test situation was new for the test persons and therefore no learned pattern of action existed (so-called informative social influence ). In addition, they hardly had time to adjust to the surprising situation. Another attempt at explanation aims at the gradual character of the experiment, which corresponds psychologically to everyday behavior patterns, but gradually shifts them towards extraordinary behavior through the continuous increase in the “willingness to punish” (so-called dissonance resolution ). This makes it difficult to assess the consequences for the test subjects. In addition, the behavior of the test subjects is influenced by changes in situational variables, such as the distance to the student or the presence of the experimenter, and not by the presence of a character disposition.
Sociologically, the experiment has therefore been seen as evidence of the effectiveness of the norm of obedience. The individual learns obedience and submission through socialization . First in the family system, later in the school as an institution . In both social contexts that are decisive for the shaping of the individual, obedience and subordination are positively sanctioned. The norm of obedience is tied to institutions and individuals who have a high social status and / or authority. For as indicated in the variations of the experiment, the willingness to obey decreases with the social status of the experimenter. In particular, when the authority is tied into a bureaucratic process that enables the delegation of responsibility to an institution, the chance of obedience increases even with orders that are perceived as immoral.
The experiment has often been understood as proof that almost everyone is prepared, under certain conditions, not to follow their conscience, but rather to follow an authority. Hence, it is used to explain why people torture or commit war crimes. Because of its spectacular results, the experiment was noticed by a wide public. The New York Times headlined as: "Sixty-five percent follow in a test blind command to inflict pain." The Times recognizes the danger of unrestrained obedience and sees the experiment as an explanation for the crimes of the National Socialists and American atrocities in Vietnam. Other papers criticize Milgram and Yale University for the ultimate ordeal they put the subjects in front of.
There were also very different interpretations of the results and the conditioning factors. Erich Fromm, for example, claimed that the reason for willingness to obey the researcher was the particularly high reputation that science had as an institution in America. The decisive result is not the number of participants who punished the students with the highest tension, but the pronounced conflict of conscience observed in almost all participants. The number of participants without a conflict of conscience is not mentioned at Milgram. Fromm sees the reports about the inner turmoil and suffering of the test subjects when acting against their own conscience as evidence of the strength of moral awareness.
Arno Gruen interprets the psychosomatic reactions of the interviewees as a sign of alienation.
The American evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser sees the experiment as a confirmation of his theory, presented in the book Moral Minds , that the human brain has evolutionary capacities to follow authority, as can also be found in primates.
Medial and artistic implementation
Director Henri Verneuil built the Milgram experiment into his 1979 film I for Icarus . Superficially, the film is about the events surrounding a presidential murder in an imaginary state; Parallels to the assassination attempt on John F. Kennedy were probably desirable.
The German television documentary Abraham - An Attempt was made in 1970 at the Research Center for Psychopathology and Psychotherapy of the Max Planck Society in Munich. It visually traces the German follow-up experiment in every detail. The broadcast caused discussions , especially in connection with German history .
In 1986, musician Peter Gabriel , who admired Milgram, recorded a song called We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37) .
The award-winning short film Atrocity (2005) reenacts the experiment.
British magician and mentalist Derren Brown used the Milgram experiment on a 2006 TV show ("The Heist") to sort out candidates who were supposed to be mentally influenced to commit a robbery.
A similar experiment is performed in the Malcolm in the Middle series , with reference to the Milgram experiment.
In 2008 episode 17 of season 9 of the American crime series Law and Order - Special Victims Unit is called “Authority”. It is about a man played by Robin Williams who pretends to be "Detective Milgram" on the phone and uses these bogus calls to induce people to involuntarily u. a. sexually harassing young women. He is acquitted and begins to demonstrate against blind obedience with a growing following. Two detectives also have to involuntarily participate in a modification of the Milgram experiment, but they pass it.
In the spring of 2009, the experiment was repeated and recorded using the "authority of television" instead of that of science as part of a supposed game show in France. The film by Christophe Nick was first on 18 March 2010 at the evening program (with the note: not recommended for children under 12) on the television channel France 2 broadcast followed by a discussion. In the television experiment, 80 percent of the participants went up to the highest level of punishment.
The second track of the 2009 album InBetweenTheLines by the French ska-punk band PO Box is called So Milgram knew it .
In the documentary Discover! The evil in us (US original: Curiosity: How Evil Are You?) Of the Discovery Channel 2011 is referred to the experiment and Stanley Milgram is shown in the experiment and interview.
In the song Caesar by I Blame Coco there is the phrase “It's the Milgram device all over again”, which alludes to the experiment.
In the episode "The Mutilation of the Master Manipulator" of the TV series Bones (Season 10, Episode 9, first broadcast on December 4, 2014), a psychology professor is murdered who carried out Milgram experiments. The main suspect is initially a participant who believed in the experiment that he had given his "student" a fatal electric shock.
- List of classic experiments in psychology
- enemy image
- The Third Wave
- Peer pressure
- Cadaver obedience
- Human experiment
- Pain station
- Stanford Prison Experiment
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- Thomas Blass: The Man Who Shocked the World. The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. Basic Books, New York 2004, ISBN 0-7382-0399-8 .
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- Stefan Mühlbauer: The case law of the Federal Court of Justice on the killing inhibition threshold. Lit, Münster 1999, ISBN 3-8258-4183-9 (At the same time dissertation at the University of Heidelberg , here: detailed analysis of the legal principles derived from the Federal Court of Justice on the inhibition threshold to kill in the case of the intent of the perpetrator based on the results and conclusions from the Milgram experiment).
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- Nikolaus Knoepffler : Authority - Bochénski's reflection with Milgram taken further. in: Knoepfler / Kodalle / Rudolph (eds.): Krit. Jb. D. Philosophy, Volume 19 (2019), pp. 59 - 75.
- Abraham - an attempt . Video streaming at FernUniversität Hagen , accessed on November 7, 2013.
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- Milgram in his diary
- Stanley Milgram: Behavioral Study of Obedience . In: Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology . tape 67 , 1963, pp. 371–378 , PMID 14049516 ( Online ( Memento from September 24, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) [PDF; 468 kB ]). Behavioral Study of Obedience ( Memento of the original dated December 1, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice.
- Stanley Milgram: The Milgram Experiment. For obedience to authority. Rowohlt, Reinbek 1982, ISBN 3-499-17479-0 , p. 22.
- Alfred McCoy: Torture and let torture. Zweiausendeins, Frankfurt am Main 2005, ISBN 3-86150-729-3 , p. 44.
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- see Milgram, 2013, p. 106
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- Steven Schwartz: How Pavlov got the dog. Munich 1993
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- Stanley Milgram: The Perils of Obedience . In: Harper's Magazine , 1974
- Hans Bernhard Schmid : Moral Integrity. Criticism of a construct. Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, Berlin 1993, ISBN 3-518-29593-4 , p. 44.
- Edward Candy: The Experiment Obedience to Authority by Stanley Milgram. In: The Times . May 30, 1974, p. 10.
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- Arno Gruen, Doris Weber: Hatred in the soul. Understand what makes us angry. Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau 2001, ISBN 3-451-05154-0 , pp. 90-91.
- Marc D. Hauser: Moral Minds 2006.
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